Apr 16, 2021 Letters
Guyanese who studied in Trinidad (UWI St. Augustine) during the 1970s and thereafter would never forget the local hospitality and kindness of Indo-Trinidadians who were very helpful to them during their difficult experience on the island. Indo-Trinis sustained, virtually fed, many (hundreds of) Indo-Guyanese (male) students during their stay on the island especially during the period of the Burnham/Hoyte dictatorship. Those who benefited from Trini kindness and warm hospitality are most grateful and thankful for food assistance. Without the nutritional assistance, several students would probably have gone to bed hungry and/or not have completed their studies. Money was not always available to purchase food.
Guyanese who studied in Trinidad would often reminisce about their experience, especially the support they received from the very kind, friendly, and generous (Hindu) Trinis. The Trinis, especially from the greater St. Augustine area and Central region were very, very supportive of Guyanese students offering them free meals and soft drinks (Solo, Lil Boy and Chubby were popular). I am familiar with their experience having spent considerable amount of time in Trinidad since summer 1981 and interacting with some of them. I too am a beneficiary of Trini hospitality and kindness. I did not study in Trinidad although I presented papers at or helped to organise academic conferences and or attended forums since my first visit in 1981. I used to visit Trinidad regularly as emissary of our political grouping in New York to interact with Trini groups on the island (mostly out of UWI and teachers like me) that supported the struggle to liberate Guyana from the throes of Burnham dictatorship. I met many Guyanese in Trinidad since the first visit in 1981 and during the hundreds of trips made thereafter to conduct opinion surveys or engage groups that collaborated against Burnhamism. As best as I know, there were no active Guyanese groups on campus championing democracy in their homeland. It was primarily Indo Trinis who were involved in the struggle against Burnhamism; they were guided and instructed by Indian lecturers in the social science departments. Those Guyanese who studied and were credentialed in Trinidad are scattered all over the Caribbean region or North America with some still in Guyana mostly in the legal field. They all spoke positively of their experience and were/are most grateful for the assistance rendered by Trinis during their student days. I too had similar experience travelling the breadth and length of Trinidad and there is hardly a village on the island or in Tobago that I did not visit.
Guyanese studying in Trinidad did not have much or sufficient money for completion of their studies; they could barely meet tuition and boarding. Several shared dorms or apartments. Lodging was a major challenge, and as such they accepted free meals whenever and wherever possible. They were very frugal in their spending. Access to foreign currency from Guyana was non-existent during the period of the dictatorship. During the 1970s thru the 1990s, foreign currency was not readily available in Guyana to pay tuition overseas unless one had political connection or affiliation. Supporters of the government hit preference. One could not leave the country without any money; violations carried stiff fines. The country was virtually bankrupt with scarcity of basic foods and in near starvation mode; many were observed with begging bowls from Timehri all the way to the villages. Foreign currency was obtained from the black market underground economy or from generous overseas based relatives who helped pay bills. So Guyanese students in Trinidad had to economise, live a spartan life, and tightly manage their budget to last their period of studies. Several students would share an apartment. They helped each other with meal preparation, laundry, and cleaning. There was no ‘surplus’ money for entertainment or exorbitant meals. Guyanese lived on basic foods and satisfied minimal needs and received food subsidies from generous Trinis who performed Hindu religious services or had weddings.
The Trinis knew of the difficult life of Guyanese during Burnham rule. They knew Burnham had banned basic foods and denied them access to foreign currency to fund their studies abroad. Families of Trini friends would entertain Guyanese students at their homes for a hearty traditional meal especially during religious festivals and often packed containers for them to take to their place of residency. The packed food would be shared with other Guyanese students, lasting for days saving them time and money to prepare meals. Many Guyanese students said they hardly prepared meals during their stay as families of Trini friends helped them a lot. They would obtain a lot of free cooked meals foods especially during religious services. Whenever there was a Puja, Ramayana, Satsangh, Katha, Bhagwat, especially in the evening, or even daytime Jhandis, Guyanese students would patronise the services when it was about to end for their meals. Students would inform each other of the religious puja. These pujas were open to the public. Food was always bountiful at the conclusion of Hindu pujas or at weddings. In addition to getting a meal, the Guyanese students would get containers of food to take home that would last for days. As some told me: “Boy, we would ‘tote’ bags of food to the dorms or apartments for colleagues. These foods would take us through the week or till the next religious function. We don’t have to cook. We would find out where there was a religious event in the evening and patronise it. Sometimes, we listened for mike announcements of or broadcasts of a religious service as was the custom. We would walk miles to the religious service because we did not have vehicles, and night maxi bus service was not always available to that location. And at any rate, we had to conserve our funds. Often, we get a ride back to the dorm or our apartment from volunteers at the religious service. Hindu, Muslim, Christian students would all patronise the Hindu event and we all looked out for one another. At times, we took Black students from Guyana or other islands with us. They enjoyed the meals and hospitality and were shocked that people were so generous with doling out foods. The hosts of the religious services welcomed us and invited us to come nightly. They knew the difficulties we faced in Guyana and they were very supportive of us. Weekend was best for us because there was always a religious programme in the St Augustine area. The Hindu religious services or weddings were the source of our sustenance in Trinidad. Just as in Guyana, we didn’t need invitation. We just go and the people gladly entertained us”.
All the former Guyanese students I conversed with said Trinis were very sympathetic having of the travails they experienced in Guyana. They remarked that often the organisers or the pandits would give instructions ‘to treat dem boys well’, meaning Guyanese students. The Pandit or others would comment “Burnham treated dem boys bad. He don’t give them money. He ban food”. There was usually an assortment of dishes including: channa and alou, katahar or chatine, dhal and kharhi, pumpkin, dasheen bhajji, sahena, katchourie, and bus up shot (paratha roti). Trinis don’t eat puri. Bottled chubby was served and the students tote a lot of it. And of course students also got a lot of parsad as take away. Trini parsad is most delicious and was or is quite different from Guyanese – theirs is made from cream of wheat and includes raisin and sweet spices like elichi. The parsad bag would contain apple, grapes, and almond nuts, items banned by Burnham, in addition to ladoo, burfi, mithai, and so many other delicious sweets. Guyanese got to eat roti and other foods that Burnham banned. I loved the Trini cuisine after a puja. The assortment of dishes was unbelievable; no other country can match their puja dishes. The food and parsad were absolutely delicious. All over the world I travelled, the Indian culture of sharing and caring and distribution of meals is similar.
Not all Guyanese in Trinidad had a pleasant experience. And not all Guyanese were model citizens in Trinidad. Some Guyanese engaged in crooked and criminal activities. As Trinis say, some Guyanese ‘skulled’ (cheated) them. Overall, Indo Guyanese students benefited tremendously from Trinis during their stay in Trinidad. Several Trinis decided to make the island their new home acquiring citizenship, getting employment, and marrying Trinis.
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